Oh, Gotham. At least you tried. I’m not going to say that the first season of Gotham was bad, because in truth there were a lot of good elements that kept it afloat. On the whole, though, the season ended up being just a notch above mediocre.
The standout of the season was easily Robin Lord Taylor as the Penguin. His clever, frantic performance was a radical departure from past interpretations (such as Danny DeVito’s and the one from the Arkham City video game), but it felt just as true to the character and, more notably, was a treat to watch. At several points, I found myself thinking that such a performance deserved a better show around it. Of course, this was not the only well-acted part: Ben McKenzie gave us a Jim Gordon worth rooting for, Donal Logue was a lot of fun as Harvey Bullock, and Sean Pertwee’s unique take on Alfred stood out as well. Jada Pinkett Smith’s Fish Mooney may have been over the top at times, but she was a strong addition to the world of Batman. Gotham was also visually appealing, and its production value, from the city skyline to Arkham Asylum, was top notch.
Sadly, the series suffered. I had previously mentioned that season 3 of Arrow was a bit unfocused, but that was nothing compared to Gotham‘s seeming lack of direction. The first stretch of episodes was the best because after that, several arcs just kept going in circles, and they weren’t as fresh as the first time around. And unlike The Flash, which was faster than most shows in how quickly it found its footing, Gotham spent its entire first season still struggling to carve out its own identity or settle on a consistent tone. It also didn’t have a handle on which characters worked and which didn’t, leading to many episodes with an overcrowded cast. This was evident in episodes where Bruce Wayne was shoved in when he didn’t need to be (lest we forget that this is a Batman prequel), and especially in the string of episodes unnecessarily chronicling Fish Mooney’s adventures during her exile from Gotham.
Another issue is that Gotham was shackled by its own premise. The idea of exploring the city before Batman meant that the show couldn’t utilize some of the comics’ best elements and characters. For some reason, however, it still felt an obligation to foreshadow and reference them in ways that often felt forced. These were presented either as overt winks to the audience ("Enough riddles, Nygma!") or as story arcs setting up the world of Batman but without any actual payoff, since the series is supposed to end before Batman arrives. This made Gotham feel like nothing more than a long prelude to a story we are never going to see.
The only way the show can escape this is if it does not play safe with the familiar Batman story. Prequels are often criticized for being predictable by their very nature—the audience knows how they’re going to end—but it’s usually the journey and not the destination that makes them work. In Gotham‘s case, though, the journey itself is limited because none of the characters are actually allowed to progress enough. ‘Pre-Riddler’ must remain ‘Pre-Riddler’. Falcone must remain an influential crime boss. The police force must remain corrupt. Hardly anything of value can happen before Batman shows up, so as not to undermine the necessity of his arrival or drastically alter its circumstances. In my opinion, the latter wouldn’t be a bad idea. We’re likely never going to see Batman, so why not mess around with the established canon if it helps tell a better story? Thankfully, the last few episodes of season 1 started doing just that, and I hope to see more of it in the future.
The first season of Gotham was an above-average police show set in a comic book universe, though one it was afraid of fully embracing or shaking up. However, beneath the fuzzy narrative and messy tone lie the seeds of a good series. I will continue watching in the hope that Gotham will find its identity, dust off its flaws, and live up to its potential.